Magic Circles, Their History and Anatomy

CircletriangleOne of the most iconic images of the ‘black magician’ is the ominous figure standing in a magic circle filled with intricate designs and mystical symbols. Magic circles have been a big part of my life recently, after being involved in a production based on the Elizabethan Occult, and watching NBC’s Constantine – so I thought I’d write a little about what they are and where they came form.

Christopher Marlowe, writer of demonological play Doctor Faustus, described the popular vision of the magical circle:

“Within this circle is Jehovah’s name
Forward and backward anagrammatized,
Th’abbreviated names of holy saints,
Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,
And characters of signs and evening stars,
By which the spirits are enforced to rise.
Then fear not, Faustus, be resolute
And try the utmost magic can perform.” (1.3.8-15)

The Start of Magical Circles
Babylonian Circle BowlMagical circles can be drawn a permanent medium – like paper, parchment or cloth – or more temporarily: either scrawled on soft ground, or drawn with something like paint or chalk. While magical circles used in the latter sense seem to be more recent, the practise of walking circles for ritual purposes dates back at least as far as Hittite battle magic.

The oldest written circles are Mesopotamian magical bowls from the 4th and 6th centuries CE. These circles have many characteristics of the circle that sorcerers like Faustus would have used, including spirals of text similar to those described in Book of Solomon. Further, the bowl contains what Aleister Crowley would have called ‘barbarous names of invocation’: “SSKB’, KBB’, KNBR’, SDY’, SWD’RY’, MRYRY’, ‘NQP’, ‘NS, PSPS, KBYBY, BNWR’”, encoded, or (as Marlowe writes) anagrammatized, to hold especial mystical power.

Another bowl, written in Mesopotamian Syriac, is inscribed with the names of various Mesopotamian gods and spirits including Moses, several names of God, and a number of old gods including Nergal and Shamesh. This bowl also has a feature that appears in many medieval and early modern magical circles in that it is divided into quarters.

From Byzantium to Medieval NecromancySlide 40 - Circle with items
The date and tradition that took magical circles from written form to being traced on the ground is unclear, although Don C Skemer of Princton University’s Rare Books and Special Collections Department believes the interaction was somewhere during the early years of Christianity in the Byzantine Empire.

While written circles, on cloth or parchment, were generally for talismanic purposes – like a circle ‘To Be Eloquent’ reproduced in Claude Lecouteux’s book The Book of Grimoires: The Secret Grammar of Magic – magical circles drawn for use in ritual magic present an environment for magical invocation.

In fact, some circles are portable temples: divided into different ‘chambers’ for the ritual participants and magical tools, plus an altar space, or symbolically armed section. One fifteenth century magical circle has a triangle at the centre of it containing representations of ritual items including a sword, an ewer, a rod/wand of some kind, and two inscribed talismanic items. The Lemegaton, a book from the 16th to 17th century, includes a circle with four positions for ritual assistants, plus a fifth for the ‘master’.

The shape itself is of little importance: some circles have triangles and squares inside them, others are bisected into two halves; some require the magician to stand inside the circle, others need him to stand outside; sometimes the creature to be summoned appears within, other times it appears in a separately drawn triangle.

What is more important than the specific design is the nature of the mystical words and symbols drawn inside it. As Marlowe wrote, magical circles often contained names of God – both from the Christian and Jewish faith – along with the names of angels, fragments of the liturgy, and the sigils of spirits that might have begun as Byzantine Christian talismans.

Myths of necromancers and necromancy tend to portray magical circles as protective, as in the story of Benvenuto Cellini, who cowers in a Slide 17 - Marlowe's Faustmagical circle with his friends while demons rage outside; or Caesarius of Heisterbach’s sceptical knight who learns to be devout after almost being almost dragged out of his circle by a hoard of devils.

The truth is much different. In necromantic magic the power of circles is the mystical energy they give, not the protection. They are a conductive space: the magical words and symbols filter specific kinds of mystical power into the circle to be used by the magician.

So, the next time you see a magician protecting himself from a demon by stepping inside a magical circle, understand that in medieval grimoire magic there would be nothing preventing it from  stepping over the edge and tearing him to pieces. However, if he’s drawn his circle properly, he might have the power to stop it by himself.


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